Generalization And Discrimination: Psychology Applications And Definitions

By: Amy Gardner

Updated July 08, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

Discrimination. It's a word that gets thrown around a lot. It can mean many different things.

At its most basic level, to discriminate means to notice and respond to the most minute differences among various objects or ideas. On the other end of the spectrum, there is a generalization, which means lumping things together without regard to their differences.

In the realm of psychology, discrimination and generalization play a huge role. They can determine our reactions to particular events and situations. They are the embodiment of life lessons (for better or worse) that we carry with us into the future.

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Here's how they work.

Discrimination Psychology Definition

Psychology's definition of discrimination is when the same organism responds differently to different stimuli.

For example, let's say you were bitten by a dog when you were a young child. As a result, you tense up and feel nervous every time you see a dog. The dog is a stimulus which triggers a specific reaction. However, you do not have the same reaction to cats. This means that you discriminate in your reactions to the two different animals.

In generalization, on the other hand, the organism has the same reaction to different stimuli. To apply this to our previous example, let's say you were too young to understand the differences between cats and dogs at the time you were bitten. Now you get anxious around any kind of animal, even though it was a dog that bit you (and not a cat, or horse, or anything else).

In the case described above, discrimination and generalization occur without your knowledge or forethought. These are unconditioned responses. It is possible to condition the discrimination or generalization response to accomplish certain goals.

For example, you can train a dog to perform specific commands (jump, sit, lie down, etc.) by giving him a treat every time he responds to the command correctly. In doing so, you reinforce a specific response to specific stimuli. If the dog is well-trained, he will not jump up when you tell him to sit. He can discriminate among the different types of commands - this an example of classical conditioning. The dog's response to your commands is a conditioned response.

Generalization can also be a conditioned or unconditioned response. When you teach a child a skill such as reading or adding, you want that skill to be carried over into other settings besides the classroom. The student must be trained to generalize their response so that they can use it in real life effectively.

Another type of response to stimuli is habituation. This occurs when the same stimulus occurs so repeatedly or constantly, that it no longer has any effect.

If you hear a siren outside your apartment building, you may jump because the noise startles you. If you heard that same siren all day long, you would no longer notice it, and it would cease to startle you.

It's possible to condition the response of release from habituation by changing the stimuli. If the subject is habituated to a certain noise, you can elicit a response by changing the noise a bit.

Early Experiments

The first known experiments with discrimination and generalization were performed by the famous Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov in the 1890s. His original purpose was to research salivation in dogs. Accidentally, he discovered that the dogs salivated not only in response to food being placed in front of them but also to the sound of the footsteps of the person who fed them as he approached. The first observation of classical conditioning had occurred.

Pavlov realized how much of a breakthrough this was and spent a great deal of time researching this response. He found that the click of a metronome could trigger salivation if it were paired constantly with the arrival of food. Eventually, the dogs would salivate whenever they heard the metronome whether they got food or not.


He also found that time was critical in this process. If too much time elapsed in between the conditioned stimulus (like a metronome or bell) and the arrival of food, it didn't work. The two events needed to happen close together in time for conditioning to happen.

In a later experiment, researchers paired the taste of meat with the sight of a circle. Eventually, they found that the circle could be conditioned to trigger salivation, just as Pavlov had found with the sound of a bell or metronome. However, these researchers took things one step further. They found that the dogs generalized between a circle and an oval shape. Both triggered salivations. After several trials in which the dogs were only given meat when presented with a circle (and not with an oval), they began to discriminate between the two shapes.

Read on to discover how conditioned responses of discrimination and generalization can be applied to real-life situations today.

Discrimination Learning

You may not realize, but conditioned discrimination responses are a part of our learning process from the time we're babies.

As infants, we quickly learn how to identify our mother out of a sea of faces. Babies as young as three months old can recognize their mothers and show clear signs of preference. This is at least partly due to classical conditioning: they know that their mother is a source of nourishment and care.

Discrimination also comes into play as infants develop their communication skills. Babies soon learn to discern different sounds to construct meaning. Amazingly, research has even shown that they can tell the difference between the sound systems of two different languages at a very young age. So, if a baby is exposed to more than one language, there is no need to fear that he/she will get them confused.

Unfortunately, we do lose some of our natural ability to discriminate among sounds as we get older. Teaching a language to an older child or an adult requires a more careful process of classical conditioning, in which the teacher simulates specific situations where a language response gets desired results. This is more effective than simply using direct instruction.

Discrimination, Generalizations, and Mental Illness

Discrimination and generalization also play a role in many kinds of mental illness.

Conditions such as phobias and anxiety develop as maladaptive learned responses to certain behaviors.

Here are a few examples.


Addictions develop when we begin to use a substance (like alcohol or food) as a coping mechanism to handle stress.

When we use this substance, our feelings of stress immediately decrease. We begin to discriminate the pleasurable feeling of stress avoidance specifically to the use of alcohol, drug, food, sex, etc. Thus, we become conditioned to use it as a response to the stimuli of stress. Because stress is ever-present in our day-to-day existence, this conditioned response quickly escalates into addiction.

The good news is that once this pattern is identified, someone with an addiction can learn alternative stress reduction strategies. Deep breathing, meditation, and other relaxation techniques can gradually replace the addictive substance. The addict learns to generalize stress reduction to other activities besides the learned response of using alcohol or drugs. Gradually over time, they can learn to generalize the pleasurable feeling of stress avoidance to other healthier activities.

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Phobias are irrational fears which lead to avoidance of specific events or situations. These can also be attributed to a learned response to specific stimuli. For example, if you were trapped in a small space for a long period as a child, you may generalize this negative experience to every enclosed space you encounter as an adult. The same feelings of terror are triggered, leading to an irrational fear of confined spaces (claustrophobia).

Generalization that causes phobias can also be treated through conditioning an alternate response. The sufferer can be exposed to the object of his or her fear in a controlled environment while in a state of relaxation. In doing so, they can learn an alternative response to the fearful situation.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety is a normal response to danger. It's an important survival mechanism, signaling us to avoid dangerous situations. Our "fight or flight" response is triggered, resulting in muscle tension and a pounding heart.

An anxiety disorder develops when we generalize this "fight or flight" response to situations in which there is no immediate danger present. For example, it is normal to feel anxious if another person verbally or physically threatens you. However, if you feel extreme anxiety every time a stranger interacts with you, then you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder. You have overgeneralized the fear response to every situation that involves meeting new people. That's why the most common anxiety disorder is called Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

In the treatment of GAD and other anxiety disorders, sufferers can learn to discriminate their fear response between situations which are dangerous and not dangerous. By learning to identify what triggers their stress response, they can learn the relaxation response as an alternative coping mechanism.

Discrimination and generalization are powerful factors in the way we interact with the world. By recognizing and harnessing these responses, we can make great progress in self-discovery and healing.

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